Every August, new freshmen stream through Phelps Gate with an unmistakable light in their eyes: the belief that they can make the world a better place.
Indeed, it’s a mantra we will hear repeatedly during our time at Yale — from professors, guest speakers and our own classmates. Even University President Peter Salovey, in his Freshman Address to the class of 2017, challenged us to lead “a life of growth, meaning and significance.”
And, at least for a few months, most of us genuinely believe we can do it.
But somewhere in the midst of our time at Yale, passion soon fades to cynicism, noble purpose to convenience and a yearning for impact to a yearning for salary.
By the end of our four years here, we manage to convince ourselves that the world doesn’t need healing, or that one person can have only a negligible impact. We start to ask ourselves, Why bother? We give up on starry-eyed dreams of soothing the world’s ailments in favor of something more practical.
For nearly 25 percent of us, giving up will mean one of two paths: finance or consulting.
The severity of the change in thinking is truly shocking. According to a survey sent out to freshmen earlier this year, a mere eight percent of the class of 2018 expressed a desire to enter finance or consulting after graduation.
What happens to us? Why is it that by the time those freshmen graduate, roughly a quarter will choose to enter fields nearly all of them initially dismissed?
In part, it starts with Yale.
Despite evidence that freshmen have wildly different interests, the career infrastructure at Yale skews heavily toward finance and consulting jobs. Even the newly rebranded Office of Career Strategy describes consulting as “one of the hottest fields for top college graduates” and regularly facilitates recruiting sessions where firms from all over the country descend upon campus and inundate upperclassmen with flashy offers of six-figure salaries and signing bonuses.
Making matters worse, Yale administrators refuse to even acknowledge the problem. When pressed on the issue in an interview with YTV, Dean Jonathan Holloway replied, “I’m not terribly concerned about it.”
But while the bureaucracy of Yale certainly deserves some of the blame, we must also admit the role each of us plays. To stop the slow march toward cynicism, we must overhaul the way we think about employment.
Too many of us have adopted the same hackneyed script: graduate from Yale, work for a few years in a high-stress, high-salary job that “gives us skills” or “helps us understand ourselves,” then pursue post-graduate education and eventually (perhaps by our thirties, maybe even forties) begin to use that knowledge to give back to the world that endowed us with so much privilege.
But such an approach seems overly obsessed with the idea of self-creation and wholly relinquishes our duty to create positive change right now for those who would benefit from our work.
Simply put, you don’t have to wait to make a difference.
Look around you. One student at Yale has already started a new business to promote science to young girls, our student body president has committed himself to implementing a critical White House initiative to curb sexual assault on campus and another group of students is literally building a solar-powered house to move us toward a global goal of sustainability.
Two decades exclusively dedicated to self-cultivation is enough. At some point we have to stop making excuses for why we haven’t given back and start translating our education into actual results for the rest of society.
Fortunately, we’ve recently seen some encouraging trends among graduates. For example, more students are looking to teach after graduation because, as one student recently told me, “I can see the direct impact of my work on a daily basis.”
But building upon that progress will require leadership from the highest rungs of the Yale ladder, along with a paradigm shift in culture among the student body.
The world is a messed up place. And if you believe you can fix it at a large consulting firm, you should pursue that McKinsey job with the fiercest of zeal. But don’t let a sense of inevitability or Yale’s corporate culture push you into a field that robs you of the light that once shone so bright on your first walk into Old Campus freshman year.
Tyler Blackmon is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column normally runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.